Objectives: To describe the clinical presentation and course of a relatively large group of Italian adult patients screened for mutation of the homogentisate dioxygenase gene causing alkaptonuria (AKU) and ochronosis, and to review typical and atypical facets of this condition.
Methods: We reviewed the medical records of 9 patients affected by ochronotic arthropathy who were observed in our institutions between 1979 and 2001. All patients were diagnosed as having AKU through a rapid urine test with alkali. Mutation screening was performed by single-strand conformation analysis of all homogentisate dioxygenase exons, followed by sequencing of altered conformers.
Results: Our 9 cases had similar clinical features and they reflected those described in the literature: a progressive degenerative arthropathy mainly affecting axial and weight-bearing joints associated with extraarticular manifestation. Musculoskeletal symptoms began in most of our patients around the age of 30 years with back pain and stiffness: involvement of the large peripheral joints usually occurred several years after spinal changes. Ochronotic peripheral arthropathy generally was degenerative, but joint inflammation was observed in some cases; this could be attributed to an inflammatory reaction of the ochronotic shard in the synovial membrane.
Conclusions: Ochronosis is a model of arthropathy with known etiologic factors. Over time, AKU, the genetically determined metabolic defect, leads to the accumulation of pigment and the development of this crippling condition. Most of the clinical findings may be explained by inhibition of collagen crosslinks, but some require additional interpretation. For example, inflammatory features of the ochronotic joint only occur in a minority of cases, and may be attributable to ochronotic shards. Further studies are needed to establish the genotype-phenotype correlation to identify mutations that are predictive of severe disease. For this purpose, the Italian Study Group on Alkaptonuria (www.dfc.unifi.it/aku) is enrolling affected patients in an on-line database to characterize the molecular defects and their relationship to clinical data.